A second wave: Thousands of suburban students begin return to classrooms
A second wave of suburban students is rolling into classrooms this month for in-person instruction under hybrid models, driven largely by mounting public pressure to reopen schools and what had been ebbing COVID-19 infection rates.
School leaders across the suburbs are monitoring transmission rates to determine how safe it is to resume in-person classes. They're working closely with county health departments on contact tracing and relying on employees, parents and students self-reporting symptoms to identify hot spots that could result in rolling back to remote-learning mode.
The state's seven-day rolling average infection rate was up to 4.0% as of Saturday, compared to 3.3% at the start of the week. Any decision to move backward to Phase 3 of the Restore Illinois plan would depend on a sustained rise in positivity rates, steady increases in hospital admissions for COVID-19 illness, reduction in hospital capacity and significant regional outbreaks.
In recent weeks, parents, students and teachers have rallied to reopen schools across the suburbs and the message has been heard loud and clear, officials say.
Hybrid learning is allowed under moderate transmission as long as schools enforce some-to-no mixing of groups of students and teachers during the school day, maintain six feet of physical distancing and follow state health and safety precautions, including mandatory use of face coverings.
Administrators at Elgin Area School District U-46, the state's second-largest school district, began shifting to limited in-person instruction starting with special needs students last week. Prekindergarten through second-graders will start hybrid classes Oct. 26. Officials are still figuring out the hybrid plan for third- through sixth-graders. Middle and high school students likely won't return to in-person classes under the hybrid model until the start of second semester in mid-January.
Transmission rates within the district, whose boundaries stretch across Cook, DuPage, and Kane counties, are at moderate-to-higher moderate or minimal levels, said John Heiderscheidt, director of school safety and culture.
A total of 99 confirmed new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people were reported within U-46's population for the week that ended Oct. 3. New case totals were 123 for the previous week and 113 the week before.
"It's starting to really trend in the right direction," Heiderscheidt said.
Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 students move to the hybrid model the week of Oct. 26. Students will have four class periods every other day. One group of students will learn in-person while the other group learns remotely, alternating every week. District high schools have been open since Aug. 24 for in-person afternoon academic supports, in-person athletics and activities, and phasing in of some special education programs.
Superintendent Lisa Small said officials are closely monitoring health metrics and the availability of staff, personal protective equipment, sanitation and disinfecting supplies and consistent implementation of safety protocols.
Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 aims to move kindergartners through third-graders to a hybrid schedule Oct. 19. Students will have four days of in-person instruction and a fifth partial day of remote learning, while remote learners follow a similar schedule. Each group will have dedicated teachers.
"It resulted in a significant increase in the number of teachers," Superintendent Fred Heid said. "We had over 100 volunteers for both in-person and remote. We're going to add another 17 full-time subs to our pool. It's going to allow us to maintain a five-hour instructional day, because that was our priority."
In-person classes will be capped between 15 and 20 students depending on the size of the classroom. The school day will be shortened -- 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. -- with art, STEM, media and music enrichment provided remotely after 1 p.m.
Growing pressure from parents tipped the scales for reopening schools.
"We are getting increased demand from our families, a certain segment of our population who are struggling remotely," Heid said. "What we heard very loud and clear after our last survey was that parents wanted a choice where they can make an informed decision for their child, and we are trying to honor that."
On Tuesday, the District 300 school board will vote on whether to return students in fourth and fifth grades to school on Nov. 2. The board earlier decided to keep middle and high school students in remote mode until January, but 74% of parents surveyed want in-person instruction to resume.
"If we start to see cases spike in a ZIP code ... if it is isolated to a building, we might go into quarantine for two weeks," Heid said.
Naperville Unit District 203 is on track to welcome limited early childhood and elementary students in schools starting Oct. 20, while middle and high school students transition to a block schedule to prepare for in-person instruction.
Preschool and elementary students gradually will return to in-person learning four days a week with Mondays designated for e-learning. Early childhood students will be split into two cohorts attending on alternating days through Nov. 6. English/language arts, social studies, math and social-emotional learning are the focus for in-person and virtual live instruction.
"We feel confident as long as things continue to trend in a positive manner," Superintendent Dan Bridges said. "We have to remain flexible to pivot, if there is any change in the health metrics."